Convincing Grace: the Grace of Repentance

When Jesus Christ came preaching into the Galilee, he made clear that there was a precondition to our entrance into his kingdom. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand,” Jesus said, “repent and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15, ESV). He announced the urgency and nearness of the kingdom, and then he taught what the proper response to those things should be: repentance and faith. Together they make up the basic substance of gospel salvation.

John Wesley teaches in his sermon, “Salvation by Faith,” that the salvation promised in Holy Scripture is “a present salvation.” He goes on, “It is something attainable, yea, actually attained on earth” by all those who have a living faith in Jesus Christ [1]. Wesley reads the present-tense proclamation of the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 2:8—“For by grace are ye saved through faith”—and notes in it that the eternal life offered to us by Christ is a life we can know now. “It is not something at a distance,” Wesley writes in “The Scripture Way of Salvation.” “It is a present thing, a blessing which, through the free mercy of God, ye are now in possession of” [2]. This is not to say that salvation does not extend to the afterlife; it does, of course. Heaven awaits those who know Jesus Christ in this life, and the great resurrection will follow at the end of days. Yet the power for salvation is something we can receive here and now.

The way of salvation that Wesley describes in his practical theology unfolds as a kind of spiritual rhythm in human life. It begins with preventing (or prevenient) grace—“the first dawning of grace in the soul” [3]. This is the grace that comes before us in every aspect of our relationship with God. It is given to all men and women, and it manifests itself in “the first wish to please God, the first dawn of light concerning his will, and the first slight, transient conviction of having sinned against him” [4]. Without preventing grace, we would have no knowledge of God and the things of God. Yet with preventing grace, regeneration of the soul by grace can begin. Preventing grace therefore has a table-setting function in the work of present salvation. It quickens the human conscience and draws our minds to the great need we have of divine help.

Following preventing grace, most explanations of the Wesleyan way of salvation proceed on to justifying grace and sanctifying grace. Yet those explanations miss a fourth expression of grace in Wesley’s theology that has no small degree of importance: convincing grace.

Wesley contends that, following the work of preventing grace, the way of salvation continues in this manner: “Salvation is carried on by ‘convincing grace,’ usually in Scripture termed ‘repentance,’ which brings a larger measure of self-knowledge, and a farther deliverance from the heart of stone” [5]. In order for our minds and hearts to be open to receive Christ, they must be emptied of the idolatry and false belief that gripped them previously. This emptying can only come about through repentance, which is therefore a necessary step along the way of salvation.

We might be forgiven if we were naturally to think of repentance as a human action carried out by nothing more than our own contrite heart. After all, if preventing grace restores our understanding to the point that we can recognize our great need for God, then isn’t repentance simply the action we do so that we can receive God’s pardon through justifying grace? Such a view is, in fact, mistaken. It is mistaken because attributing repentance to our own volition would rob God of the glory of our salvation. We do not save ourselves—at any point! So the enlightenment of our understanding, the contrition of our repentance, the forgiveness of our justification, and the growth in holiness of our sanctification are all the result of God’s grace working in us.

When Wesley wants to cite a supreme example of convincing grace, he looks to the thief on the cross next to Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. When his counterpart mocked Jesus, the good thief answered him, “‘Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss.’ And he said unto Jesus, ‘Lord remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom’” (Luke 23:40-42, KJV).

In his Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament, Wesley writes about this scene, “What a surprising degree of repentance, faith, and other graces!” To him, the source of the thief’s contrition is no mystery: “This shows the power of Divine grace,” Wesley claims [6]. Repentance should not be attributed to human will, because human will absent the power of God’s grace would never be capable of it.

God’s preventing grace makes us ready to receive the convincing grace that leads to repentance, just as that convincing grace makes us ready to receive the justifying grace that gives us true faith. Jesus’ initial preaching in the Galilee emphasized the twin themes of repentance and faith, as we have already seen from the Gospel of Mark. There is, in fact, a sense in which repentance and faith are two sides of the same coin. Wesley underscores this bond between them in “The Repentance of Believers”—

By repentance we feel the sin remaining in our hearts, and cleaving to our words and actions. By faith we receive the power of God in Christ, purifying our hearts and cleansing our hands. By repentance we are still sensible that we deserve punishment for all our tempers and words and actions. By faith we are conscious that our advocate with the Father is continually pleading for us, and thereby continually turning aside all condemnation and punishment from us. By repentance we have an abiding conviction that there is no help in us. By faith we receive not only mercy, but ‘grace to help in every time of need.’ Repentance disclaims the very possibility of any other help. Faith accepts all the help we stand in need of from him that hath all power in heaven and earth. Repentance says, ‘Without him I can do nothing:’ faith says, ‘I can do all things through Christ strengthening me’ [7].

The message of Jesus calls us to both: repentance and belief in the gospel. Both are given to us through the gift of grace. We experience justification when we enter into true faith in the living God—or what Wesley calls “proper Christian salvation” [8]. Yet for that to happen, we must first experience the conviction of true repentance. While sorrow for sin and contrition of the heart can be heavy experiences and difficult to endure, what Wesley helps us to understand is that they are actually gifts of grace. They are nothing less than actions of the Holy Spirit convincing us that we cannot save ourselves, and thus they are means by which we find salvation in the living God.

______________________________

NOTES
[1] John Wesley, “Salvation by Faith” (1738), ¶II.1, in vol. 1 of The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley, ed. Albert C. Outler (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1984), 121. This edition of Wesley’s works is hereafter cited as Works of John Wesley.

[2] Wesley, “The Scripture Way of Salvation” (1765), ¶I.1, in Works of John Wesley 2:156.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Wesley, “On Working Out Our Own Salvation” (1785), ¶II.1, in Works of John Wesley 3:203.

[5] Ibid., in Works of John Wesley 3:204.

[6] Wesley, Note on Luke 23:40, in Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament (1755), Twelfth edition (New York: Carlton & Porter), 205.

[7] Wesley, “The Repentance of Believers” (1767), ¶II.6, in Works of John Wesley 1:349-350.

[8] Wesley, “On Working Out Our Own Salvation” (1785), ¶II.1, in Works of John Wesley 3:204.

By Andrew C. Thompson

______________________________

Dr. Andrew C. Thompson is the senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Springdale, Arkansas. He previously served as Associate Professor of Historical Theology and Wesleyan Studies on the faculty of Memphis Theological Seminary.